Online Master's Programs in Sustainability

Earning a master's in sustainability online can help professionals advance or change their career. Many governments, companies, and organizations employ master's degree-holders as sustainability managers, advisors, analysts, and program directors. According to PayScale, professionals with an MS in sustainability earn an average of $60,000 per year, while individuals with a BA in the field earn an average of $44,000 per year.

This guide includes information about common academic requirements for master's in sustainability programs, including typical courses, project requirements, and specializations. The following sections also detail funding options, professional organizations, and career opportunities for graduates.

What Can I Learn in an Online Master's in Sustainability Program?

Students earning a master's in sustainability online explore current environmental issues such as fossil fuels, global warming, loss of biodiversity, and resource scarcity. Degree-seekers learn sustainability methods, the science behind climate change, and techniques for protecting endangered resources.

Master's in sustainability programs typically offer specialization areas such as biology, chemistry, ecology, geology, and soil science. Many graduates become industry leaders, consultants, policy makers, engineers, and scientists. Earning a master's degree can lead to career advancement, helping professionals obtain leadership positions in the field.

Degree-seekers in most programs gain practical experience during an internship with a business, government agency, research facility, or nonprofit organization. Students gain advanced communication, writing, and research skills. Learners also examine management techniques and develop scientific expertise. Some programs encourage students to develop marketable skills through courses in areas such as business, engineering, urban planning, public policy, and law.

What Courses Are Offered in a Master's in Sustainability Program?

Each online master's program offers different classes, and students should research the curricula of prospective programs. However, the common courses listed below are available in many sustainability master's programs.

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    Contemporary Issues in Environmental Science: This course covers the fundamental, interdisciplinary sciences used in sustainability studies. Learners explore environmental issues from perspectives that incorporate biology, geology, chemistry, and physics. Students discuss and debate issues related to current environmental problems, such as resource depletion, deforestation, and pollution. Participants develop communication and research skills by completing written assignments.
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    Research Methods: Many master's programs require a thesis project. This class prepares students to conduct research for their final project. Students deconstruct the processes of gathering and analyzing data and explore application techniques that are critical to addressing sustainability problems and constructing a thesis. Students learn to ask important questions and craft innovative solutions.
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    Environmental Systems Analysis: This class emphasizes sustainability issues with conflicting concerns, such as economics and the environment. Students search for solutions using linear and nonlinear mathematics. Learners explore environmental engineering problems, such as proactive management of resources and green design. Students also learn to define systems, create mathematical frameworks, and apply algorithms.
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    Urban Sustainability: Students examine the intersection of sustainability and urban development. This course covers green development, the sustainable use of natural resources, economics, renewable energy, and industrialization. Learners analyze past and current environmental policies governing developed and industrializing cities. Students learn to apply this analysis to foster innovative urban sustainability techniques, methods, and practices.
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    Green Development: This course examines sustainable, green development from various perspectives, such as architectural design, site planning, and construction. Learners also analyze the relationship between green development and resource use, energy consumption, social justice and equity, public policy, and the economy. Students explore the impact of urban development on the environment, animal populations, and human communities.

What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?

Students earning a master's in sustainability online must typically complete a capstone project. This final project generally involves in-depth research culminating in a thesis. Students choose a sustainability issue to research and analyze, and they draw conclusions supported by data. Degree-seekers usually work with an academic advisor to choose their topic and write a paper.

A graduate degree in the field prepares students for careers in areas including engineering, the sciences, education, and consulting. Some career paths may require additional exams or certification -- particularly jobs in engineering, the sciences, and education. Students should research their prospective career to determine whether they may need additional credentials.

What Specializations Are Available in a Master's in Sustainability Program?

Many learners obtaining a master's in sustainability online specialize in a certain area of the field. Earning a specialization can make graduates more competitive for related positions. Specialization options and titles vary by program, but many master's in sustainability programs offer the following concentration options.

  • Environmental Biology:

    This specialization explores the biological sciences. Students gain hands-on field experience and conduct research related to wildlife and ecosystems. Learners often take courses from the biology department.

  • Environmental Policy:

    Students in this track explore the intersection of environmental sustainability, public interest, and the economy. This concentration examines past and current sustainability policies, and coursework encourages debate about the best ways to address issues. Students also learn to craft policy.

  • Resource Management:

    Students in this specialization learn about habitat restoration, land conservation, and management of nonrenewable resources. Students examine how conservation methods impact organizations, companies, governments, and cities. This specialization may require an internship or fieldwork in conservation or restoration.

How Much Can I Make With a Career in Sustainability?

After earning a master's in sustainability online, graduates can pursue careers in the areas of engineering, business, law, consulting, education, and the sciences. A sustainability master's degree prepares graduates for advanced leadership roles. The table below details three potential careers for degree-holders. However, no degree guarantees a particular position or salary.

Industrial Ecologist

Industrial ecologists use their knowledge of physical sciences, social sciences, and natural ecosystems to design efficient and sustainable models for industrial businesses and systems. These professionals strive to use natural resources effectively and sustainably. Industrial ecologists need expertise related to technical systems, natural systems, economic systems, and societal issues.

Median Annual Salary: $71,130

Job Growth 2018-2028: 7-10%

Environmental Engineer

Environmental engineers often solve problems associated with waste treatment, site remediation, and pollution control. These engineers need strong research, design, analysis, and planning skills. Some environmental engineers work as consultants. Others work full time for a company or government agency. Many environmental engineers have expertise in an area such as law, construction, business, or science.

Median Annual Salary: $87,620

Job Growth 2018-2028: 4-6%

Sustainability Consultant

These professionals help businesses, communities, governments, and nonprofits create environmentally friendly policies and practices. Sustainability consultants may specialize in a certain type of industry, law, or business. Consultants typically work in office settings, but some professionals may travel, work in the field, and/or perform onsite inspections of factories and workspaces.

Median Annual Salary: $70,530

Job Growth 2018-2028: 4-6%

Online Master's in Sustainability Program Accreditation

Sustainability is a relatively new, independent field of study. Students researching master's in sustainability online degree programs should look for regionally accredited universities and colleges.

Students can also look for programmatic accreditation from field-specific agencies such as the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council. This organization develops guidelines and standards for higher education institutions regarding environmental health science and protection.

How to Pay for a Master's in Sustainability Degree

Students can pursue many funding opportunities to help defray the cost of earning an online master's in sustainability. Below are three common methods for covering the cost of tuition and fees.

  • Employer Assistance

    Some employers offer tuition assistance to support employees who are continuing their education. The Internal Revenue Service allows students to exclude up to $5,250 in educational assistance benefits each year.

  • Student Loans

    Students can take out private loans to fund their education. Additionally, learners who demonstrate financial need may qualify for low-interest federal loans. Because loans require repayment, students should only consider taking out loans after exhausting other funding options.

  • Fellowships

    Fellowship programs typically provide funding for students who are pursuing advanced research. Fellows can apply their monetary award toward the cost of tuition and expenses. Fellowships do not require repayment, but candidates typically undergo a rigorous application process.

Scholarships for Master's in Sustainability Students

Dr. Wesley Eckenfelder, Jr. Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are enrolled full time in a graduate program at an accredited college or university. Applicants must be studying environmental engineering or environmental science.

Amount: $5,000

Apply for Scholarship

Charles P. Bell Conservation Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Applicants must be studying a field related to natural resources management -- specifically fish, wildlife, or water. The foundation only considers Missouri residents, but recipients do not need to attend an in-state institution.

Amount: $600

Apply for Scholarship

Annie's Sustainable Agriculture Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Graduate students who apply for this scholarship must attend an accredited institution and enroll in at least nine credits. Applicants must be studying sustainability with a focus on agriculture.

Amount: Varies

Apply for Scholarship

Garden Club of America Fellowship in Ecological Restoration

Who Can Apply: This fellowship supports graduate research and study in ecological restoration. Applicants must be enrolled at an accredited institution and plan to research biodiversity, ecological processes, or sustainable practices.

Amount: $8,000

Apply for Scholarship

The Blades of Green Scholarship Fund

Who Can Apply: Learners pursuing a graduate-level education in environmental studies or a related field may qualify for this merit-based award. Applicants must submit a 350-500-word letter of intent describing their target career path and passion for their intended field.

Amount: $1,000

Apply for Scholarship

Professional Organizations and Resources

Many professional organizations offer membership to students and professionals. These associations often provide educational resources, job boards, career advancement tools, and networking opportunities. Members may also receive information about new research in sustainability and related scientific and engineering fields.

  • American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists: This nonprofit organization provides board certification for environmental professionals. The academy publishes scholarly journals and offers lecture series, awards, seminars, and training workshops for students and professionals.
  • Ecological Society of America: ESA promotes the study of ecology through mentorship, membership, and advocacy. This organization supports students and professionals who specialize in any area of ecology. The society works to preserve and promote biodiversity, natural resources, and sustainable practices.
  • Institution of Environmental Sciences: This charitable organization is dedicated to raising public awareness of environmental issues. The IES supports professional scientists and academics across environmental disciplines. The institution also partners with universities and colleges to promote sustainable development.
  • International Society of Sustainability Professionals: ISSP is a membership organization composed of sustainability professionals. The organization offers a community of sustainability experts, continuing education resources, study materials, and networking through local chapters. ISSP also provides credentialing exams.
  • North American Association for Environmental Education: NAAEE promotes educational excellence in environmental studies. Members hold positions in business, government, and education. The association offers certifications, scholarly publications, and continuing education opportunities.